It’s a heartbreaking reality for some young adults in foster care as they reach the age of 18 and realize that they are now legally adults, meaning they have aged out of the foster care system. Many are immediately left with no place to go, as they were never reunited with their biological parents and never adopted by another family.

According to statistics from the National Foster Youth Institute, more than 23,000 children will age out of the U.S. foster care system every year, and 20% of those children will become instantly homeless after turning 18.

To help combat this issue, the Salvation Army Women’s Auxiliary of Hood County has created its own local program called GAP.

The Salvation Army GAP Program is a mentoring opportunity — available only in Hood County — designed to care for children currently in the foster care system. According to salvationarmytexas.org, volunteers are trained and paired with youths and meet once a month. Volunteers help with special interests and hobbies, goal setting and life skills to prepare for the future.

“What we can do to prevent them from being homeless is what our goal is, especially when they don't have family or any kind of support if they aged out,” said Mary Flores, GAP sponsor. “We need more time invested in the kids to make sure that we have a plan when they age out, that they have a place to stay, they have identification, if they should be on Social Security, disability and Medicaid. That's our goal — making sure that they don't fall through the system, making sure they have housing.”

Flores and friend, Sally Timmons, spent a year advocating for and presenting the program. On Feb. 2, 2018, the GAP program was approved. Volunteers were trained on June 6, 2018, and the GAP program received its first teen on Nov. 8, 2018.

The program has two components: Pre-GAP, which encompasses teens ages 13-18 in grades eighth through their senior year and the GAP program, for teens ages 17 in grade 12 to age 23.

Community volunteers become mentors to their foster teen as they help them through high school and prepare them for independent life after graduation, whether they decide to head to college or choose a career field.

Mentors build a strong bond and relationship with their teen, while teaching them about the fundamentals of adulthood — such as opening a bank account and how to search for jobs.

Melinda Fortner, a GAP mentor, has been mentoring a 15-year-old teen for a little under a year. She said she has already helped her teen learn about managing money and has encouraged her to volunteer at a veterinary clinic over spring break.

“Some of them (the teens) don't know until we educate them. If they want to go to college, the state of Texas will pay their tuition. We've already shared that with our 15-year-old, because she makes good grades,” Fortner said. “We've taken our teen to see ‘Elf: The Musical’ at Christmas. We've been to movies. We are planning on miniature golf, just to establish that rapport and find out her needs. With the younger teens, it's establishing that rapport and trust. I know at one of my trainings, the speaker said, ‘They just need someone to listen and hear me,’ and that's what we're trying to do.”

Each teen is budgeted with an amount annually for the mentor to use on the teen. Pre-GAP teens receive $500 each year while GAP teens receive $6,000 to assist them with preparations needed for housing and transportation as they prepare to navigate life on their own.

“The funding is huge,” Flores said. “We have one teen that wanted to do acting and they wouldn't be able to participate, being in a foster home, that kind of activity. We want them to have a normal life like any kid that was not in the foster home. We want to use that funding to inspire them to do things. You might plant something in a teen that probably they had no clue of doing as a career.”

“And even if that's not something they would be interested in, as far as future work, it would give them a sense of self-worth and importance of ‘somebody's listening to me and watching me if I'm on stage,’” Fortner added.

Each mentor is paired with another volunteer every time they accompany their teen, as per the policy required by the Salvation Army.

“There's always two volunteers together when working with anybody minor, and I like that because it protects the teen, but it also protects the volunteer,” Flores said. “These kids have been through so much. You know, even a certain touch can trigger something in their mind.”

Flores noted that trauma is the No. 1 problem experienced by foster children.

Flores said a total of 16 teens have gone through the program, and seven are active currently.

“I know it's a low number, but we'd rather focus on what we can because some of these cases are very intense and time consuming,” she said. “Some of the volunteers are putting out a lot of hours within the month. For the month of May, we had 125 hours between our volunteers, and in working with our kids.”

There are currently 14 mentors in the GAP program who have completed their training.

“It's not easy,” Flores said. “I mean, these mentors are taking on these kids and they really become part of a family.”

To become a mentor, volunteers must be at least 30 years of age, must pass the Salvation Army and state background check, must read and understand the Texas Foster Care Handbook and the Children’s Bill of Rights in Texas, as well as complete the required training of Safe from Harm, trauma, STOP the Bleed, CPR, AED and choking — plus continue training throughout each year.

Flores spoke with a teen who has recently gone through the program and asked about his experience.

He stated that the GAP program gives teens the support system they need and that if more mentors were like the ones he had, the “program would be really successful.”

The teen, who himself grew up without a father, said more men mentors are needed.

“The only thing that holds people from being like, great and good when they can't help themselves, is a good support system, and I think that the GAP program can really help with that. We can put people on the next stage, that next level of being great,” he said.

To submit an application to become a mentor for the GAP program, or for more information, contact Flores at 817-579-3330.

“The more people that know about it, actually, I believe we'll get volunteers,” Fortner added.

ashley@hcnews.com | 817-573-1243